Summer Reading Group: Need and Incarnation, Elimination and Regulation

This is the final post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post is drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck.

Blood, saliva, mucus, pus, urine, and feces contaminate my gloved hands on a regular basis. Disgust triggers and death reminders are a daily part of my life as a pediatric interventional radiologist. Like most health care workers, I have learned to regulate disgust in order to care for patients. So, while oozing bodies may be no less disgusting to us now than prior to our training, maintaining a focus on healing enables us to overcome revulsion and provide treatment despite contact with offensive material.

Beck begins the last chapter of Unclean with a description of Piss Christ in which photographer Andres Serrano submerged the iconic image of Jesus on the cross under the same offensive blood and urine in which I daily immerse my own hands. Most Christians responded to Piss Christ with self righteous disgust, revulsion, and anger. However, others found it possible to interpret the piece as an eye-opening theological commentary on the scandal of the incarnation.

What leads to such opposite responses? According to Beck, whether Christians find the connection between Christ and bodily fluids offensive or inspiring depends on what he calls incarnational ambivalence. This embarrassment at the interpenetration of divine and human is not new. Beck traces its roots to the late 3rd century when Arius denied the divinity of Christ. According to Beck, the Arian heresy was not so much an attempt to denigrate Jesus, as it was intended to preserve the honor and perfection of God. The issue was over God’s character.

Ironically, Arius, the heretic, took a theologically conservative approach emphasizing the holiness and transcendency of God. Athanasius, the orthodox, made a theologically liberal move rejecting a self-contained, sterile God for a God of love and relationship which presupposes need. Ambivalence toward our own neediness, vulnerability, and dependency still causes many Christians to recoil at the thought of God in need.

Not only do we deny neediness in ourselves and God, we exhibit a particular form of sinful conceit in a vain attempt to overcome need. As Beck writes, “Specifically, we posit a self-contained God, a God that needs nothing. And with this as the Imago Dei, we then seek to become like this God, self-contained and self-sufficient, needing nothing to sustain ourselves. In short, a denial of the Incarnation is an attempt to flee from our need and, as we will see, this undermines our capacity to love" (pg. 170).

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” is quoted twice in Matthew. Beck describes the first instance in Matthew 9 as an attack on notions of purity which would otherwise lead to exclusion from table fellowship. He notes that the second occurrence in Matthew 12 goes beyond fellowship and hospitality to focus on human need and vulnerability. This is juxtaposed against the divine command to observe the Sabbath.

The examples in Matthew 12 of picking grain for food, healing a lame hand, and pulling an animal out of a ditch all on the Sabbath contrast need and sacrifice. These examples present in stark relief the potential conflict between a legalistic Seventh-day sacrifice of following divine command and the more radical and Christ like mercy of recognizing and meeting human need. It seems Jesus addressed the Pharisees this way because they felt rich, wealthy, and in need of nothing and were therefore blinded to other’s needs. They needed salve to help them see how self-sufficiency makes us unloving.

If this was true for the Pharisee’s two millennia ago, our modern heights of technologically-advanced death repression have created an even more pernicious denial of our own vulnerability and need. Our fear of death must be cured for “the reason we observed in Matthew 12: honestly embracing need is critical for a life of mercy" (pg. 176). You see, for those of us who have been ‘privileged’ to never experience poverty, racial discrimination, same sex attraction, or gender inequality, it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to empathize and understand why poor people don’t just ‘get jobs,’ why black people shake their heads at ‘all lives matter,’ why LGBT+ people can’t choose to ‘pray away the gay,’ and why women won’t find ultimate fulfillment in their supportive ‘complementarian' roles.

But, it is not enough to simply recognize our own need in order to understand the needs of others. We must recognize that needs are not equally distributed. Some bodies are exposed to greater risk of injury, harm, and death than others. As Ta-Nahisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me, “[Y]ou are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country” (pg. 137) . This fragility is nothing intrinsic to the body of a black teenager. Rather, the fragility is imposed by uneven costs for inevitable mistakes, diminished access to resources, and a general sense of not belonging. Stating that black lives matter is a way of calling attention to disparity. Making black lives matter requires the healing demonstration to black teenagers that we need them. They belong. They are loved.

As Beck writes on his blog, “In short, there is a connection between love and vulnerability. This is why the kingdom of God is always found among "the least of these." The kingdom is found among those whose bodies are more fragile not because these bodies are more virtuous, holy or saintly. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.”

“No, the kingdom of God is found among those whose bodies are more fragile because, as Coates writes, vulnerability brings us closer to the meaning of life which, for Christians, means closer to the meaning of love.”

Disgust on the other hand makes love impossible. In the pages of Unclean, Beck mentors us through an internship in the subtleties of disgust and the ways it has infected the church. We have seen that disgust and the attributions of contamination affect how we reason about morality, experience grace, and relate to the holy. Disgust also guards the boundaries of our communities acting in opposition to hospitality. Finally, disgust has been implicated in a denial of our neediness and vulnerability insulating us from human existence and blinding us to the needs of others.

“So, what are we to do about disgust psychology in the life of the church?" (pg. 183).

To answer that question, we must revisit what was for me one of the most insightful revelations in Unclean: the differences in moral reasoning between liberals and conservatives. In chapter 4, Divinity and Dumbfounding, Beck references the work of Haidt and Graham who identify five categories of moral foundations: 1. Harm/Care, 2. Fairness/Reciprocity, 3. Ingroup/Loyalty, 4. Authority/Respect, and 5. Purity/Sanctity. They found that those of us who are liberal/progressive tend to appeal to the first two horizontally human-focused foundations to determine morality whereas those of us who are conservative/traditional employ all five foundations to make moral judgments, often favoring the more vertically divine-oriented categories at the end of the list.

In retrospect, I can trace my own evolution from conservative to progressive through these categories. My first two decades in the pure remnant of Adventism had a heavenward focus with the ingroup assurance that we had the truth based on the authority of scripture and Ellen White. “God is love” described for me just one of God’s literal attributes which also included holiness, justice, and wrath. My third decade in Adventism brought a horizontal focus on community that tempered my heavenward idealism with the reality of the lives around me. “God is love” took on John’s qualification “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Then in my fourth Adventist decade I have become acutely aware of the harm our community has caused in unfairly excluding those deemed unfit, heretical, and impure. Some would say the problem is that I turned my gaze downward off of Jesus. But, that same Jesus turned his own gaze downward saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

I now wonder whether I will even experience a fifth decade of Adventism. “God is love” now seems less descriptive and more definitional or even redundant. After reading Beck’s book, I better understand why fundamentalist Christians and atheists alike maintain that my transition into liberalism is a slippery slope into unbelief. In focusing horizontally on fellow humans, liberal Christianity merges seamlessly with humanism. I have all but eliminated vertical notions of purity and holiness which separate the world into clean and unclean.

The benefits of this move are considerable. I have ceased to judge the unclean as contemptuous and worthy of exclusion. As a result, patriarchy, witch hunts, and exclusion have been renounced. Removing a transcendent dimension from faith has certainly helped eliminate disgust and purity seeking so that love can flourish. But is there a cost?

Beck assures us there is a cost and his diagnosis hits home hard. The immanent (as opposed to transcendent) church he says, “may struggle with a sense of “flatness” (pg. 191). I do. Church without a sacred dimension feels irrelevant. It does. The loss of the transcendent calls the existence of the church as a church into question. “Why be “religious” if liberal humanism is enough?" (pg. 191).

If you come up with a good answer, let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll share my tentative thoughts. I find it ironic that science denying faith is based on the same impulses which inspired us to evolve beyond self absorption so that we are now a small part of the vast universe becoming aware of itself. By faithfully traveling our various religious journeys, we learn to deny, control, accept, and finally celebrate our animal nature. Traveling the length of the religious paths our forebears blazed without stopping to colonize or leaving prematurely to criticize is a time tested way to become fully human without being controlled by or denigrating our evolved bodies. If this is so, then humane, loving communities are made possible after religion.

Jesus started with communities centered around the synagogue and the law and went on to create living communities centered around caring for the most vulnerable in society. He carved space out of the Roman Empire for healing and protection of the most fragile bodies. Moving through the Judean countryside which was occupied by both religious and political oppressors, he announced the present reality of the Kingdom of God—A kin-dom where the most oppressed and marginalized are welcomed and cared for.

How can we go about sustaining these same communities? Beck recommends Jesus’s last supper. The Eucharist incorporates every facet of disgust from core disgust at what we eat, to moral disgust over how we are purified, to social disgust from the radically inclusive call to “wait on each other,” and even to mortal disgust at the broken body and blood of Jesus. Eating the sacraments should shock us with the scandal of a God who needs and bleeds. After all, which is more scandalous—an image of God awash in blood and urine on the outside or Godself coated with blood and filling up with urine on the inside?

The Eucharist serves many roles. In recognizing God as a peace loving humanist, we find our striving for the divine only sends us back into the world. This process can help regulate our inherent disgust, keep our worship grounded in the gritty, oozy realities of the human body and teach us to love well. If practiced with intentionality, the Eucharist has the potential to convert even the church.

In some hospitals the doctor’s dining area is separate from the cafeteria for other staff, patients, and families. Thankfully, the hospital where I work has just one cafeteria for all of us. We eat together. The important symbolism of this shared experience should not be underestimated. Like the shared Eucharist it demonstrates that we won’t hide or deny our shared needs; in our variety of roles we are united in caring for our patients; and, we don’t exclude based on hierarchy.

Completely erasing disgust is an idealistic impossibility and may even be undesirable. And yet, because there is no hiding from need in the hospital, in that sacred space I have experienced disgust yielding to compassion and healing. Likewise, when we open our eyes to the way the Eucharist exposes our own need, calls us to serve others, makes marginalized lives matter, and inspires us to heal the inequality in society, perhaps our religious disgust will also give way to love.

Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He writes from the Kansas City area where he lives with his wife and three children.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7140
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Christ spent more time as a carpenter than as an evangelist. Did He ever hit His thumb? His humanity challenges me as much as His Divinity comforts me. Edward Heppensrsll captures that in the most telling fashion in his little book The Man Who is God. tom z

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“Why be “religious” if liberal humanism is enough?" (pg. 191).

Humanists have recognized that religion is insufficient to be part of and act toward others while also respecting, even loving others. Humanists are doing the right things, because they understand they are no better than anyone else; while many religious believers cannot honestly claim that when they judge others, even condemn them.

I am a humanist who once loosely claimed to belong to a religious group. Today, there are many religions, including the SdA that I would not want to be a part of when I can read all the derogatory remarks that have been written about others in the name of true and remnant religion. It is not an attractive religion to be a part of in the 90 years I’ve been intimately involved with. It could be, but the signs all point to an even more exclusive, rather than inclusive system.

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Elaine,

I have a few questions if you have the opportunity to respond.

How would you describe your 90 years (Wow!) of involvement with Adventism? Have you gone through a process similar to the one I described in my (brief) 40 years of involvement with Adventism? (i.e. gradually moving from a conservative/traditional to a liberal/progressive perspective)

You said Adventism is not an attractive religion but, “It could be.” What do you think would make Adventism attractive?

I was born a PK so have been able to observe the church from the “inside”, and it is not always pretty. Both my parents were good Baptists and met at the church. They converted to Adventism shortly before my older sister was born and soon my dad began selling SdA books: Bible Readings for the Home Circle which was the reason they converted.

A short time later, a wealthy farmer offered to send him to Southern Jr. College and he studied there for several years, but was unable to continue as the funding ran out; and with a family of three children at that time, he accepted a call to be an asst. pastor in Kentucky. Later, he pastored many churches and held “tent meetings” (with the sawdust floor) each summer. We moved more times than I remember, but it gave us the opportunity to learn new friends in each place.

Then he was offered a department secretary for the conference office, the longest residence I remember. But because he was on the road so often he asked to take a pastorate again to be at home.

As converts, they were very zealous and my mother, especially, must have read all the “Testimonies” and was greatly influenced by them.
Going to self-supporting schools I was bombarded with SOP much more than the Bible and sorta closed my mind to it. “Testimony” meetings were held regularly and the students were expected to give their “testimonies.” I hunkered down and refused to play those games, simply obeying the very strict rules, but refusing to believe they were necessary.

During one of my dad’s tent meetings, I met my future husband and we became engaged before going to Union College that fall. He became and Adventist and was baptized by my dad and as most converts, was a student of EGW.

We were both involved in the church when we settled here (now 55 years) but in the mid 80’s after listening to Des Ford, and studying the NT on my own, I began to realize that there were many things taught in Adventism that did not harmonize with the NT, and asked to have my name removed from the church as it was against my integrity to claim to be something I could not accept.

Never have I rued the day I left the church and increasingly as things are getting more dictatorial in the church’s leadership, I am very much at peace over that decision.

Adventism would be more attractive if was not so exclusive; baptizing on accepting Chist as savior and not affirming all the FB’s, making baptism synonymous with church membership. The periodic addition of more FB’s is indicative of fear that some will “get by” simply being a good Christian. The church should open its arms to all who seek rest as Jesus has promised them.

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For your next step, I challenge you to read John 6 again, and this time read it carefully, without excluding the nasty, alarming and sickening bits. Most Protestants are just pikers, here squeamishly-blanching in horror. “He couldn’t have meant that, could he?” That response is Gnosticism, really. Then read the Early Church Fathers, particularly Ignatius of Antioch; Justin Martyr and Polycarp. Now THAT is where the REALLY jaw-dropping Eucharist scandal is found! You haven’t even begun your encounter with this disgusting and alarming procedure, yet!

An Atheist said that if Christians REALLY believed what Jesus was saying in John 6, they would approach the Eucharist, groveling on their hands and knees.

The Jewish revulsion at the consumption of ANY blood went back clear to Noah, where the human race was commanded to avoid the consumption of animal blood. The Mosaic covenant made the avoidance of animal blood into a fanatical, squeamish, life-time commitment. No wonder some of Jesus’s disciples left, upon comprehending what he really meant. He meant: You WILL really drink MY blood and really eat MY flesh. To the Jewish mind, the prospect of deliberately drinking human blood was so terrible and awful, that people who had followed him for years, fled in panic.

They weren’t fleeing from a “symbol.”

Jesus then turned to his other disciples and asked “Are you going to leave too?” He was practically daring them to leave.

As the Romans joked, those Crazy Christians cannibalized a dead Jewish criminal. They stopped joking, though, when they would sink their swords up to the hilt in an innocent Christian’s windpipe, at the coliseum. There was the Light of the Morning Son in those innocent eyes, and a glow that they saw flicker and die.

They instantly became committed to having that light.

Some of the Roman soldiers dropped their swords on the ground, and dropped to their knees, instantly earning their own death sentence. They wanted that light in their eyes, more than anything. When the Romans realized they were running out of soldiers to execute, they surrendered to Christianity, at the First Council of Nicea. They could not beat the draw of that Light.

That’s what the Real Eucharist does: it causes that irresistible light.

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Elaine,
Did you know Alice Duffie? Her dad was at Union - had something to do with the bell tower at Union.

It seems to me that the weakness of secular humanism, is that it provides no framework to acknowledge or recognize the victim mechanism. That is to say it provides no force to humanity to consider its own predisposition to scapegoat, rather, humankind is really only concerned with those who have been scapegoated by our neighbors. A secular humanist can feel good about bestowing goodwill on the selected “under-privileged” group. But, how can a secular humanist really see her own predilection to scapegoat the favorite target, like, uh say, Christianity?

Rene Girard says: " From now on we have our anti sacrificial rituals of victimization, and they unfold in order as unchangeable as properly religious rituals. First of all we lament the victims we admit to making or allowing to be made. Then we lament the hypocrisy of our own lamentation, and finally we lament Christianity, the indispensable scapegoat, for there is no ritual without a victim, and in our day Christianity is alway it, the scapegoat of last resort."

Girard attributes to overall societal improvement not to secular humanism, but to Christianity and the concern for victims that has been nurtured (albeit imperfectly) for centuries…Christianity should not be seen as twaddle that is typically ineffective. He claims that our societal improvement is due to the Christian influence and concern for victims…this began in the house of God, that extended the arm of the Church so that it became a hospital which would welcome crippled, ill and all without social, political or religious distinction. The church ushered in the modern victim concept.

Girard again: “The essential thing in what goes now as human rights is an in-direct acknowledgment of the fact that every individual or every group of individuals can become the “scapegoat” of their own community…Christian truth has been making an unrelenting historical advance in our world. Paradoxically, it goes hand in hand with the apparent decline of Christianity.”

Furthermore, Girard postulates an end time last ditch effort by Satan to make a new start and gain new triumph, by borrowing the language of victims. He denounces the Christian concern for victims as hypocritical and pale. This Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings peace and tolerance which Christianity had promised but failed to deliver. Luke recorded Christ as announcing that Satan had fallen like lightning. But he is still active in stirring up humanity to use the scapegoating mechanism of violence. We must cling to the resurrection for its miraculous sign of a God who is superior to violent contagion. That is to say that humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind.

Purely secular anthropology minimizes the insidious hold that evil has on humans and their need for redemption. The scandal of the cross is instructive for all time-----

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Thank you Carmen, I was afraid everyone would leave Beck’s question hanging: “Why be “religious” if liberal humanism is enough?"

I should have known I could count on you to bring in Girard. His ideas deserve to be heard by a wider audience.

The thing about mimetic rivalry and scapegoating is that it is remarkably effective at unifying a privileged group as they galvanize around vilifying, excluding, and in some cases killing a minority or underprivileged individual or group. There is nothing like a common enemy to help us overcome our rivalries and forge a temporary peace.

And then Jesus demonstrated the bankruptcy of the whole system. The scapegoats society selects are villified, described in demeaning terms, hypersexualized, and cast in a pall of fear to create the idea of monstrous subhuman creatures suitable only to be sacrificed for the greater good. Jesus’s story undermines this trope since he is described as good, loving, compassionate, and fully human. And yet, he became the scapegoat and then returned to life thus revealing the dark underside, evil motivations, and destructive results behind the whole process of scapegoating.

Sadly, the Christian community which claims to follow Jesus has more often than not become chaplains to the worst offenders in scapegoating against groups like the witches, blacks, and gays. I have not considered how frequently Christians themselves are scapegoated against. I suppose this is in some ways appropriate and even preferable given the way Jesus was treated. Still, it is a sad and depressing revelation of our human brokenness.

It would be truly healing if we could all learn to repent from violence in thought, word, and deed rather than finding temporarily effective though ultimately unjust outlets for it focused on the scapegoat of the day.

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Why be religious if humanism is enough? Because I love God and Jesus and what they have done for me, my family and the whole world. Because God has opened my heart in so many ways to become a better person. Because God has been my strength, comfort and righteousness. Because humanism is human, and I want a God to look up to who is magnificent, and I have found him.

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